Mass extinctions - why they matter even to people who do not care about environment?

Sunnuntai 28.6.2020 klo 20:13 - Mikko Nikinmaa

In a recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) Caballos et al. wrote an article “Vertebrates on the brink as indicators of biological annihilation and the sixth mass extinction” (PNAS 117(24): 13596-13602, 2020). It is a clear account about how many terrestrial vertebrates are on the brink of extension. While the message of human role in extinctions is very clear, the present extinction rate being about 1000 times greater than the background rate, it is very difficult to get people who do not care of the environment to realize that it also matters to them. One of the salient points of the article is that the disappearance of one species affects the well-being of other species.

People, who don’t care of the environment, usually care about themselves. Only few people have been against Covid-19 restrictions. What they often do not realize that the Covid-19 pandemic is associated with the extinction wave. One of the biggest reasons for extinctions is the fact that increasing proportion of land goes to human use because of our population growth. As a result, the remaining wild animals come in closer contact to humans and tame animals than earlier. This increases the likelihood of animal micro-organisms reaching humans and consequently zoonosis (i.e. diseases transmitted from animals to humans). It is no wonder that the number of diseases transmitted from animals to man has drastically increased in 2000’s: MERS, SARS, Ebola, Chicken flu, Swine flu and now Covid-19. Even if one does not care about environment, one should care about one’s health.

Also people, who do not care of the environment, must eat, and they IMG_20170807_0146.jpgmay like blueberry pie. About three quarters of all our food plants require insect pollination. Currently pollinating insect populations are decreasing drastically, and the worst scenarios suggest that we cannot eat blueberry pies within 50 years, because of lack of pollination. There are two reasons for the decreasing insect populations. The first is the heavy use of insecticides, and the second the reduced land area for insect refuges (i.e. land areas, which are not in heavy agricultural or other human use). Again, the increasing human populations exert the most important pressures, and to enable sustainable agriculture, one should be able to stop population growth.

While Caballos et al. article did not consider aquatic animals, they are also suffering from extinctions. The worst scenarios suggest that overfishing causes extinction of most important commercial fish species before 2100. In addition to overfishing, aquatic pollution causes the extinctions. Thus, the problem affecting the diets of people not caring of the environment, is caused by mass extinctions.

The mass extinctions themselves are the result of growth ideology. To be able to have reasonably good life for everyone, we should be able to abolish inequality.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: land use, insecticide, agriculture, population growth

What to Wear?

Keskiviikko 26.2.2020 klo 11:48 - Mikko Nikinmaa

Virtually all clothing is today made of cotton, polyester or their mixtures. Presently textile industry is one of the biggest causes of environmental contamination and uses a lot of energy largely produced with fossil fuels. One of the problems with clothing is that the life cycle has decreased a lot with increasing GNP. The time that for example trousers are used has decreased to one third of what it was 50 years ago. Thus, one way of decreasing the environmental footprint of clothing is to use them longer. Another is to recycle them, certainly most of us in Europe and North America have nearly unused clothing in our cupboards, which could be recirculated. If a piece of clothing is not in adequate condition to be sold, it could theoretically be recycled to produce new clothing. However, already this presents difficulties, since most clothes are cotton-polyester mixtures, and remaking usable cloth from the mixtures is nearly impossible with present methodology.

However, even though longer use and recycling of clothing decreases the environmental footprint of textile industry, it does not abolish it. New clothes are needed all the time, and both cotton and polyester have significant environmental impacts. Every time one washes polyester-containing clothing, some microfibres, microplastics, end up in spinnova-sustain-20180123-WEB.jpgwastewater. Although modern wastewater treatment plants remove 99 % of the microplastics, some still end up in our rivers, lakes and seas. With recent discussion about microplastics it is hard to realize that the problem with cotton is much worse than that caused by polyester, but it is! First, cotton uses up very much land in subtropical and tropical areas, where land would be needed for food production. Second, cotton is cultivated in semidry areas, where it uses up virtually all water. The water is thus taken away from food production. The problem would be slightly smaller, if the profits from cotton would come to the local people, but this is not the case. Third, cotton cultivation is the most insecticide-intensive branch of agricultural production. In addition to insects, millions of birds are estimated to die every year because of eating the insects dying as a result of pesticide treatment.

In view of the above, an environmentally thinking person is faced with a dilemma: what to wear, since pretty much everything is environmentally unsustainable. The solution to this dilemma may be soon forthcoming. Start using clothes made of wood fibre. The Finnish company Spinnova has, together with Marimekko made the first experimental batches of clothing using wood fibres produced with their method. In addition to removing all the problems with cotton, the production can be carbon neutral. Further, if trees are planted to some of the arid areas, where cotton is presently cultivated, the area may become more moist (it appears that the presence of trees somehow helps to increase rainfall).

So, after a few years of asking for sustainably produced clothing, we may be able to change our rags to new clothes. One may hope that also dyeing them is done in a more environmentally-friendly fashion than is today done with cotton cloth in major producers like India, Pakistan and Bangla Desh, where cloth dyeing is a major source of aquatic pollution.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: climate change, land use, microplastics, insecticide, water shortage

Gaia is sick: It is not only Climate Change

Lauantai 22.12.2018 klo 13:35 - Mikko Nikinmaa

Gaia hypothesis was generated in 1970's by chemist James Lovelock (and co-developed by microbiologist Lynn Margulis). It states that organisms interact with their inorganic environment so that the Earth is a complex self-regulating system, where chemical, physical and biological components all affect the state of Gaia (=Earth). In the early 1990's there was a computer game simulating the development of Gaia.

Gaia concept is very fitting to climate change, bIMG_20170728_0063.jpgecause any change is the result of changes in atmospheric chemistry, energy production, the use of fossil fuels, radiation, respiration of organisms, environmental pollution, photosynthesis etc. However, although climate change is at the moment the most serious complex disease of Gaia, there are many other, which all generate problems, and require active combatting. They include land use, waste production, environmental pollution and biodiversity loss. If one tries to pinpoint a single factor causing the diseases of Gaia, the increase of human population is that. If there were less than two billion of us like there were a hundred years ago, none of the problems - climate change, environmental pollution, biodiversity loss etc. would have occurred provided that today's technologies were used.

With regard to land use, large population needs space for housing and food production. This results in cutting forests, and both decreases carbon dioxide utilization worsening climate change and causes biodiversity loss. It is notable that organic farming is actually a bigger problem than modern agriculture, since the same amount of food production requires larger area whereby carbon dioxide sink is reduced as more forest needs to be cut. (It is clear that plants used for food production also take up some carbon dioxide, but the amount is smaller than for trees). Land use also includes mines and such like. Much of metal mining could be stopped, if all metals were recirculated.

Increased food production is necessarily causing biodiversity loss. It is, for example, thought that overfishing will increasingly result in a decrease in a number of marine species. Largely fisheries-induced biodiversity loss could be decreased by aquaculture. Notably, aquaculture decreases biodiversity loss only if their feed is not fishflour, i.e. fish are not caught to get fodder. One way of increasing land area for food production is to replace cotton fibre with wood fibre and another is to decrease meat use (and thereby production).

The waste collection and recycling of materials can be improved and environmental pollution decreased by effective wastewater treatment plants. However, regardless of what is done, the problems become more difficult to solve with increasing human population. So, Gaia is sick, and the best remedy would be to be able to decrease human population, or since this is not likely to be achieved, at least stop population growth. To be able to do this an important component would be improving women's status and schooling. Also, a major shift in ideology is required - growth ideology must be scrapped.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: land use, population increase, growth, energy production

To combat climate change with farming subsidies

Sunnuntai 25.11.2018 klo 20:15 - Mikko Nikinmaa

Much of the farmers' income in Europe is subsidies from state or European Union. This simple fact makes it feasible to do the actions in farming, which are required for combatting climate change, without much affecting farmers' income. Now that all political parties claim that they are in favour of climate actions, this should be eElokuu6.jpgasy to do. All it would take is to direct production towards products, which have less effects on climate than the present agricultural products. This could be done by giving subsidies on the basis of their climate effects. As a result, for example, having sheep for meat production would be discouraged and number of meat cattle would be reduced. Instead, cultivating, e.g., root plants like carrot and turnip could be encouraged. The exact ways by which the subsidies should be redirected should be planned by expert committees with knowledge of the direct and indirect climate effects of cultivation. One point in addition to the subbsidies themselves is that the transport of produce should be minimized, so that local production would be favoured. This could actually be included in the subsidies: increasing them, if the product is used close to the area of production. In this way the carbon dioxide footprint of transport of agricultural products would be decreased. 

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: agricultural policy, land use, climate change

Climate change, biodiversity loss - reincarnations of population bomb

Perjantai 2.11.2018 klo 12:46 - Mikko Nikinmaa

Very recently several important contributions on environmental questions have been published. First, the IPCC report on Climate Change, and, second, the WWF Living Planet 2018 report  (WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report 2018. Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland.). In addition, an article in Nature (Resplandy et al. 2018   Quantification of ocean heat uptake from changes in atmospheric O2 and CO2 composition, Nature 563, 105-108) indicates that more heat has been absorbed by the oceans than conservative estimates suggest, i.e. that climate change may be worse than previously thought

Surprisingly, the reports do not give virtually any attention to the size of human population, although looking at the above two pivtures, a striking similarity in the population increase and athospheric carbon dioxide level graphs can be seen. In the future, it can unfortunately be estimated that if climate actions are not effective, carbon dioxide production increases much more than population growth, since population growth occurs in areas, where carbon dioxide production per person has increased markedly during recent past. Also, the major reasons for the huge (60 %) biodiversity loss are habitat loss and exploitation, both the result of the need of increasing population to get food and other commodities.

It is shocking that economic circles and politicians throughout the world forget that all economic activity ultimately depends on healthy environment. As a result, growth is not possible indefinitely, and economic theories should center not around growth but around sustainability. And one of the major aims of future global planning should be to limit world population. However, as long as the growth-based ideology predominates, population growth is needed. Naturally, actions to corb population growth should be such that nobody is offended. I have toyed with the idea that foreign aid would be given to individuals, not the (mostly corrupt) governments. The direct funding would depend on the size of the family, increasing with a decrease in the number of children. Another significant action would be the schooling of women: this would significantly decrease the population growth, and would also foster equality - certainly opposed by many in male-dominated societies.

Many innovative solutions to decrease the exploitation of wild animals and habitat distruction have been already advanced. Also, there are a plenty of possibilities to decrease the energy needed for transporting goods and new ways of energy production. However, in my opinion, a success in combatting both climate change and biodiversity loss requires that we are succesful in limiting population growth. If we cannot do that, there is bound to be a collapse resembling one that is always seen with animal populations, which have become too dense.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: land use, extinctions, energy consumption, carbon dioxide

Meat-containing diet - not as bad as usually thought

Sunnuntai 19.8.2018 klo 12:37 - Mikko Nikinmaa

When thinking of the most sustainable diet, it is normally considered that one should turn to fully vegetarian one to feed world's population. If animal products were used at all, they should be from ectotherms like insects and fish. Against this background it came as a surprise that having a small amount of traditional farm animal products in the diet actually reduces the land use needed for obtaining a given amount of energy even as compared to vegetarian diets. This surprising result is caused by the fact that farm animals can utilize feed that is human refuse - something that cannot be included in vegetarian diets. Pigs and cows happily eat the leaves of sugarbeets and turnips, which would just be left to rot and to release the carbon dioxide taken up back to the environment, if strictly vegetarian diet were utilized. This surprising conclusion was reviewd by van Zanten et al. recently (Glob Change Biol. 2018;24:4185–4194). So, the most sustainable diet includes some animal products.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: land use, climate change, food consumption, population growth

Aquaculture - a sustainable way of getting animal protein

Perjantai 8.6.2018 klo 11:46 - Mikko Nikinmaa

Currently, roughly 3/4 of all agricultural land area is used for meat production. As it is still expected that consumption of animal protein is on the rise, obtaining it with cattle or pork (or even chicken) is becoming impossible, as there is no agricultural land available. A major change that releases agricultural land to the cultivation of crops and vegetables feeding humans, is an increasing use of fish, shellfish and crustaceans as the major source of animal protein. However, traditional fisheries as a source of fish flesh is out of the question, as already today the world's seas are overfished. The same is true for traditional aquaculture, which uses fish flour as the major feed component - increasing aquaculture production increases overfishing. However, aquaculture with major proportion of feed produced as land crops is a possible solution for increasing the role of aquaculture in sustainable animal protein production. Froehlich et al. (2018; PNAS 115, 5295-5300) have estimated, how the land use will change, if animal protein is predominantly produced in aquaculture, with major reductions in the roles of cattle and swine. As a result of the changed practise, a land area of the size of Indian subcontinent would become available for other uses by 2050. Such change would take place with the current increasing trend of animal protein use. If the trend is stopped, even more agricultural land can be used for other purposes. A change in cultivated fish species from carnivorous to herbivorous species will naturally help, but big strides have already been done to develop salmonid fodders with major plant components. Aquaculture (together with aquaponics, i.e. cultivating fsh together with soilless plant production) will undoubtedly play an increasing role in future food production.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: sustainable development, land use, global change


Sunnuntai 30.4.2017 klo 11:19 - Mikko Nikinmaa

Cats and dogs and other pets are so cute - and many people have them. So it is quite risky to say anything negative about pets. However, they are actually a quite negative feature. Cats have caused the extinction of at least 30 animal species. The number of animals killed by our cute pets per year is billions. With regard to dogs, inbreeding causing a host of serious sicknesses is a problem. In addition to these two questions, the land use to produce food for pets, and the amount of carbon dioxide they produce in their respiration are agricultural land away from food production for man, and contributes to climate change. It can be estimated that the land use to feed pets would feed hundreds of millions of humans, and if there are a billion pets, they produce about 100000000000 l carbon dioxide in a day. This amount of carbon dioxide, although it is a small contributor to carbon dioxide production, is something we could completely avoid.

So, although pets are nice (and also I have had dogs), they do not support sustainability.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: extinction, inbreeding, climate change, land use